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COLERIDGE, a magnificent dreamer, has left us only a few fragments to show what his life-work might have been, had industry been wedded to his lofty genius. We think of him as of some rarely gifted architect, before whose mind's eye visions of sublime temples were continually floating, but whose realized work consists of a few pillars and friezes, exquisitely beautiful, indeed, but lying on the chosen site unfinished and unset.
Born at Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, on the 21st of October 1772, this youngest child of a poor country vicar entered the hard school of an orphan’s life at Christ's Hospital. There, within grey old walls, began his cherished friendship with the gentle Charles Lamb. Already, under the long blue coat of “ the inspired charity-boy,” the nature of the man was burning. He dreamed away his days; he read books of every kind with insatiable relish. until history, novels, even poetry, began to pall upon his taste. and nothing but metaphysics could afford any delight to the boy of fifteen. The sonnets of Bowles, however, struck a chord, whose vibration filled his young soul with untold pleasure. During the two years of his residence at Cambridge, whither he went in 1791 as an exhibitioner of Jesus College, his habits deepened. Ideals, ever floating before his mind, sadly impeded the real work of the student. His first success—a gold medal for Greek verse—was followed by some defeats, which, coupled with a little debt and his admiration for revolutionary
DREAMS AT BRISTOL AND POEMS AT STOWEY.
France, caused him to abandon a college life without taking his degree.
Starving in London, he enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons under the name of Comberbach, and spent four wretched months in trying to fathom the mysteries of drill and stable-work. The discovery of his classical attainments by the captain of his troop; who observed some Latin words written under his saddle as it hung upon the wall, led to his release from this position.
We then find him at Bristol, with his new friend Southey and four other young enthusiasts, building a splendid castle in the air. They were to sail over the Atlantic to the banks of the Susquehanna, and there to found a Pantisocracy, or domestic republic, where all goods should be property in common, and the leisure of the workmen should be devoted to literature. Only one thing was wanted to carry out the scheme-money. Failing this, the pretty bubble burst. Probable starvation by the Avon, instead of republican ease and plenty by the Susquehanna, was the stern reality which
now pushed its dark face into the dreamer's life. His 1795 pen, employed by a Bristol bookseller, kept off this ugly
shape; the struggler added to his difficulties by
an early marriage with a girl, whose sister became Southey's wife. Poor Lovell, who died very soon, had already wedded the third of these Bristol Graces.
A cottage at Nether Stowey in Somersetshire, nestling at the foot of the Quantock hills, received the youthful pair, who resided there for about three years. Out of this, the brightest period in a desultory life, blossomed some of the finest poetry that Coleridge has written. An Ode to the Departing Year, and that piese entitled France, which Shelley loved so well, are among the productions of this peaceful time. But finer than these are two works of the same period, which deserve more than passing mention. The Rime of the Auncient Marinere was written at Stowey, and there Christabel was begun.
“The Ancient Mariner” is a poem in the simple, picturesque style of the old ballad. The tale—told to a spell-bound weddingguest by an old sailor, who, in a few vivid touches, is made to
THE ANCIENT MARINER.
stand before us with grey beard, glittering eyes, and long, brown, skinny hands-enchains us with strange and mystic power.
The shooting of the albatross, that came through the snowy fog to cheer the crew—the red blistering calm that fell upon the sea the skeleton ship with its phantom dicers driving across the sun in view of the thirst-scorched seamen—the lonely life of the guilty mariner on the rolling sea amid the corpses of his shipmates—the springing of good thoughts at the sight of the beautiful water-snakes sporting “beyond the shadow of the ship”—the coming of sleet, and rain, and a spectral wind—and the final deliverance from the doomed vessel, are among the pictures that Ait before us as we read-shadows all, but touched with weird light and colour, as from another world.
A visit to Germany (1798), the expense of which was defrayed by the Wedgewoods of Staffordshire, deepened the hues of mysticism already tinging the spirit of Coleridge. His translation of Schiller’s Wallenstein was the principal result of his residence in that land of learning and romance. Upon his return to England in 1800, he took up his abode in Southey's house at Keswick, and with some temporary interruptions he continued to make the Lakes his head-quarters for ten years. He wrote largely for The Morning Post ; during a visit to Malta in 1804 he acted as secretary to the governor of that island; he came home to deliver his eloquent and profound criticisms on Shakspere to a London audience, and to issue the weekly essays of the short-lived Friend, which ceased after a few numbers, as had happened to the Watchman, a similar venture of the old Bristol days. During these many changes, his opinions, both political and religious, had veered completely round. Once a Red Republican, he was now a keen upholder of the throne; once a Unitarian preacher at Taunton and Shrewsbury, he now acknowledged his firm belief in the Trinity.
In 1810 he bade good-bye to the Lakes, and went to live in London with various friends, who could forgive and pity the
1810 thriftless, erring man for the sake of his splendid genius. His natural sloth and dreaminess were increased by the destructive habit of opium-eating, or rather laudanum-drinking,
CARLYLE'S PORTRAIT OF COLERIDGE.
which he had formed while using the drug as a medicine. Deeper and deeper he plunged into those abysses of German metaphysics towards which he had been gradually drifting. Various convulsive efforts at hard work were made by him at times, but all his great plans dissolved into vapour and vanished. The roof of Gilman, a friendly surgeon at Highgate, sheltered the dreamer during his last nineteen years ;
and there the old man used for hours to pour out his wonderful talk in a stream, which was often turbid and slow, but which sometimes broke into a brilliant run, or discovered, through its clear crystal, the rich sands of gold and shining gems below. At Highgate he died in July 1834.
Carlyle's portrait of Coleridge "sitting on the brow of Highgate Hill,” to be found in his “Life of Sterling," is remarkably vivid :“Brow and head were round, and of massive weight; but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration; confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute; expressive of weakness under possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees bent, and stooping attitude; in walking, he rather shuffled than decisively stepped; and a lady once remarked, he never could fix which side of the garden-walk would suit him best, but continually shifted, in cork-screw fashion, and kept trying both. A heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely muchsuffering man. His voice, naturally soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and sing-song; he spoke as if preaching—you would have said preaching earnestly, and also hopelessly, the weightiest things. I still recollect his object' and (subject,'—terms of continual recurrence in the Kantean province; and how he sung and snufiled them into 'om-m-mject and sum-m-mject, with a kind of solemn shake or quaver, as he rolled along."
His noble fragment, Christabel, has been already named. Begun at Stowey, and continued upon his return from Germany, by the advice of Byron it was given to the world in 1816 in its unfinished loveliness. Both Byron and Scott have echoed the irregular music
“ CHRISTABEL" AND OTHER POEMS.
of its verse, though with peculiar variations. It is a tale of strange witchcraft. A sweet and innocent girl, praying for her lover's safety beneath a huge oak-tree outside the castle gate, under the dim moonlight of an April sky, is startled by the appearance of a witch, disguised as a richly-clad beauty in distress. The gentle Christabel asks the wanderer into the castle; the disguise is there laid aside; some horrible shape smites the poor hospitable maid into a trance; and the blinking glance of the witch's small, dull, snake-like eyes, shot suddenly at the shuddering victim, clouds the innocent blue of her eye with a passive imitation of the same hateful look. In dealing with mystic themes like this, Coleridge was master of a spell over thought and language, such as no other writer has ever possessed. But his inspiration came in gusts, and fragments grew around him at such a rate that soon the difficulty of choosing what to finish caused all to remain undone. His life was a succession of beginnings which never saw an end. He went to college, but took no degree. He prepared for emigration, but did not start. He got married, but left others to support his wife and children. At twenty-five he planned an epic on the Destruction of Jerusalem ; but tomorrow—and to-morrow—and to-morrow -passed without one written line. A great genius with a great infirmity—the twinhood of mental strength and feebleness
- he claims at once our reverence and our deep compassion.
Besides the works already named there are two which cannot be forgotten, as examples of the varied powers of this great poet. For simple tenderness and depth of natural feeling his little lovesong of Genevieve cannot be surpassed. And the Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni, of which we quote some lines, has in it an exultant sublimity akin to Milton's song. While the melody of Genevieve most resembles the sighing of “a lonely flute, stealing through the odours of the summer dusk, this Hymn to Mont Blanc swells through the darkness of the Alpine morning up to the rosy summit of the snow, with all the tumultuous music of a vast organ, pealing in unison with the chorus of ten thousand rejoicing throats.
Coleridge's Lectures on Shakspere have been already named